My experience with depression in academia

A painting that is almost entirely a deep turquoise blue, divided by a horizontal line of lighter blue in the middle

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue)

And now for a post on a more personal matter.  I haven’t said much about this publicly, but for the last several years of my PhD studies, I’ve been dealing with a severe case of depression.  I missed major deadlines, failed in my teaching obligations, and thought seriously about dropping out at various points.  For most of that time, I didn’t really understand that I was ill, or that treatment was an option.  Once I did understand that and opened up about how I was feeling, I made enormous progress towards feeling happy and productive again.  I’d like to talk about this experience, and how some common narratives about academic success can make it particularly difficult for graduate students to identify when they’re depressed and get help.  Depression is a very common experience for graduate students, with nearly 40% of students in a number of countries reporting that they feel moderately to severely depressed.  If you’re reading this and it resonates with something in your experience, some treatment resources are discussed at the bottom of the post.

Depression from the Inside

Depression really caught me unawares.  Other members of my family have a history of depression, but I hadn’t been affected by it when I was young, so I always believed that I’d gotten lucky and wasn’t susceptible to this.  I don’t recall anyone ever speaking to me about the importance of emotional health, and of being open with your feelings.  For most of my life, if I felt sad or stressed, the only coping mechanism I had was to ignore the problem and pretend that I was fine.  This worked well enough for a while.  However, by my late 20s I was facing a series of problems that were difficult to ignore, including a marriage that was not going very well, and some serious doubts about whether the PhD I had embarked upon was actually the right career path for me.  I felt trapped, and ashamed of admitting that I was unhappy, and I grew steadily more depressed over time.

I got through the first and second years of my PhD well enough.  By the third year, however, I was barely getting out of bed unless I had to go to class or teach — and sometimes not even then.  I hardly engaged with the class I was teaching second semester and cried in front of them more than once.  I started skipping my own classes and on-campus presentations that I really wanted to attend.  My committee had to reschedule my prospectus defense date after I missed the deadline for submitting the prospectus with no warning.  I scraped through the defense and went off to Ghana to start my dissertation research in my fourth year, only to spend most of my time there moored up in my room by myself.  It took me a solid year of this before I finally thought, I have to tell someone about how I’m feeling.  (I’ll write more about treatment and recovery below.)

In retrospect, it is unbelievably obvious that I had depression.  Any one of the incidents above would have been enough to signal that something was wrong; all of them together could not be any more clear.  So why didn’t I understand what was happening to me?  And why didn’t anyone else call me out on it either?

I spent that entire period blaming myself for being lazy and stupid.  I understood that I felt depressed, but I didn’t think I had depression, because that was something that happened to other people.  I thought that I just needed to work harder on ignoring my problems and forcing myself out of bed, even though it felt like someone had replaced all my bones with lead when I wasn’t looking.  I was also convinced that if I didn’t pretend that I was fine — if anyone realized I was struggling — they would judge me and dislike me and perhaps kick me out of the PhD for being an incompetent scholar, and then I would be both sad and unemployed, which would be even worse.  The idea of going to therapy never crossed my mind, because I thought you should only go to therapy if you had a real problem, and not if you were simply lazy and stupid.

I now know that this is one of the cognitive effects of depression.  It’s easy to end up in these spirals of negative thoughts.  It’s also very tempting to just try to ignore the underlying problems, because they’re always on your mind and you’re tired of thinking about them.  I so badly wanted to just snap my fingers and be all right, and I spent years thinking, “today is the day that I get my act together,” even though the same statement hadn’t worked on the previous day or week or month.

Depression in Academia

Academia can be an especially difficult place to contend with the idea that depression is your own fault.  I was struck by how my feelings of shame and guilt around depression were reinforced by narratives about the determinants of academic success within my department — and within the American academy more broadly.  Throughout my time at Berkeley, I received the message that success in the PhD was the product of intelligence and discipline.  If you weren’t doing well in the program, it was because you lacked those attributes, and consequently didn’t deserve other scholars’ time or attention.  There is little room in this narrative for the idea that mental health problems — or structural problems like racism or sexism — could also affect students’ work, for reasons unrelated to intelligence or effort.  Fortunately, there is now growing awareness that graduate students’ personal lives and mental health have an impact on their academic performance, but there remains a lot of work to be done to really dislodge these ideas.

This narrative of personal effort was communicated to me in ways small and large.  For example, it was common to hear that people who left the program before they finished, because it wasn’t a good fit or because they wanted other employment, simply “couldn’t hack it.”  I thought seriously about dropping out at some points, but the idea of being known as someone who couldn’t hack it was horrifying.  When I started regularly missing classes and subfield colloquia, one senior professor commented that I was failing to signal my commitment to the department, and implied that I had been a bad investment for them, which made me feel even more panicked and depressed.  Later, when I had trouble finishing a prospectus draft, and eventually missed my defense date entirely, I got a number of comments from faculty about how I needed to stop flaking out on selecting a topic and just do the work — but no one ever asked if there was a reason that a previously high-performing student was now badly struggling.  I ended up telling my committee that I had been upset about a family illness which was diagnosed shortly before the defense date, which was true, but definitely not the underlying problem.  No one said anything about the fact that I had been disengaged from my work for months before the defense as well.  (To my classmates’ credit, several of them did ask if I was all right during this period.  I wasn’t in a position to give them an honest answer at the time, but it means a great deal to me now that they noticed and cared enough to ask.)

I don’t think any of these messages or actions were maliciously intended.  They’re born of a type of congratulatory self-regard among some professors, who tend to overemphasize the role of intelligence and effort in their own success, and disregard the role of privilege and luck.  They’re also the product of a fairly decentralized PhD system in the social sciences in the US.  Students are responsible for selecting their own topics and keeping up their own progress.  Advisors are expected to support their students, but don’t tend to closely monitor their work.  I was always told that the responsibility for maintaining relationships with my committee was entirely up to me, and that I shouldn’t expect them to reach out.  All of this meant that when depression hit, my own deep sense of shame about it was compounded by the department’s narrative of personal effort, and no one was in a position to consistently observe that I was struggling and ask if I needed help.  That’s not unique to academia, but I do think it can be especially pronounced there.

Treatment and Recovery

I ended up climbing out of the well of depression on my own, with support from my family and friends.  After a full year of being miserable, I finally decided that telling people about how I was feeling couldn’t really be worse than what I was already feeling.  I went in concentric circles, starting with my partner, then my family, then close friends.  After much discussion with them, I made some decisions that helped me have more control over the underlying problems in my life.  My partner and I reevaluated whether our relationship was working, and ended up getting the world’s friendliest divorce.  I moved back to East Africa and launched the Mawazo Institute with a good friend, which put me back on track towards the type of career that I really wanted — research-focused, but not within academia.  I took my fifth PhD year off from dissertation work, mostly by accident as I was busy with the move and Mawazo, but also ended up finding that it was useful to have some time away from research in order to regain my enthusiasm for it.  I also started doing a lot of journaling to address some of my continuing mental health issues.  Even after I resolved some of the major problems that had been stressing me out, I still had a lot of negative thought patterns that I’d developed during years of depression, and journaling helped me to identify those and work to reduce them.

It’s now been about a year and a half since I began opening up about my experience of depression.  There have been many points when I felt that I was just complaining without feeling better, or when I did start to feel better, only to get totally knocked out when some new source of stress came up.  But the average trend of my feelings has been decidedly upwards, towards a place of much greater self-understanding and much less fear and shame.  Talking about my emotions has deepened many of my friendships, as I found that people tended to respond to my admissions about mental health not with derision, but by sharing stories about their own challenges.  It’s helped me to have a calmer, happier, and more trusting relationship with my current partner, knowing that I can now communicate openly about any problems that might arise.  It’s improved my performance at work, as it let me address some productivity issues which I hadn’t even realized were related to depression, like what used to be a horrible habit of procrastinating on email.  And it’s allowed me to feel curious about the world again, which, as someone who still hopes to finish her PhD research some day, is very reassuring!

All of this is to say, if any of this post resonates with you: there is nothing wrong with you.  Depression is such a normal experience, and there’s no shame in having it.  Trying to hide how you feel often seems tempting, but it’s usually only delaying an inevitable reckoning.  It can feel pretty vulnerable to open up about your feelings at first.  However, if you can do that with a friend or a therapist who will support you — or with a journal, or in prayer, or in some other way if you’d rather do it privately — then there’s a high likelihood that you’ll start to feel better.  There’s some really interesting research about how identifying your emotions actually reduces the activation of your amygdala (which is one of the places the brain processes fear) and helps people feel better when confronted with stressful situations.  Simply talking about your feelings can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your life, even if it doesn’t immediately fix an underlying problem.

There are a number of different approaches to treating depression.  You might try several of them, alone or in combination, before you figure out what’s most useful for you.  For me, journaling has been incredibly effective.  I’ve had to invest a lot of time in it — anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours per day, over many months — but it’s ultimately helped me develop a great deal of insight into my own feelings, and identify solutions to a range of problems.  Here are some tips on how to get started with journaling.  Speaking to a therapist has also been shown to be highly effective at reducing depression in many people.  I didn’t do this last year because I was traveling a great deal at the time, but I know many of my friends have found therapy very useful.  The American Psychological Association has a good overview of what to expect from therapy, and why some common myths about therapy aren’t true. Medication is also an option, and you can work with a psychiatrist to figure out if it seems helpful for you.  Here’s a useful overview of antidepressants.  There’s no shame in using medication to treat depression, and there’s also nothing wrong with deciding that you’d rather not use medication.  It’s really important to pay attention to your own experience and preferences when you’re seeking treatment.  It can feel really difficult to find the energy for this when you’re already depressed, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

24 thoughts on “My experience with depression in academia

  1. Thanks for writing about this. It’s great when blog get personal. and this sort of honesty is rarely seen and I’m sure you’ll find you’re reaching out to people who also have in one way or another had to combat depression. Personally I actually ended up with deep anxiety as a result of Larium. The anti-malaria. Although it was always there underneath. Depression strikes weekly. somehow I’ve learnt to dig myself out. I was really hit by anxiety/depression in 2003 after a near death experience in Bangladesh. and it’s always been a bit of struggle since then. In 2006 I got malaria in West Africa and was treated with Larium (although I didnt realise it at the time) and the after effects were pretty hideous. But it’s an issue for me even before I felt the side effects of Larium. Sorry I feel like I’m writing half a blog post here. Id love to know more about your experiences in Ghana. When I was there – my first stop in 2006, I totally freaked out about where I was. Which had never really happened to me before. Not like that. I know I was travelling and your were there for academic reasons. I dont know. I actually found the French speaking countries somehow … well they were better for my soul. And I dont really know why it was that way. It was my first stop and I was completely freaked out by anything I ate – worried it had peanuts (serious allergy for me). But I do remember days I simply didnt want to leave my hotel rooms. anyway. GREAT post. I’ve never felt I could explain my depression to people who hadnt experienced it themselves. And then… I still felt… almost like a fraud for saying I had depression. such a weird one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like you’ve had a tough time of it as well! It definitely took me a long time to figure out that I wasn’t a fraud or just lazy or something. I hope you’ve been able to find some good sources of support!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much for this post. People who haven’t experienced anything like this might not understand how brave you are to expose yourself in this deeply personal way, so I’d like to thank you for writing this. I’m on my 3rd year of my PhD journey and I’ve been struggling with a lot of the same things as you did. Seeking therapy has helped me a lot these past months but as you said it yourself, sometimes progress isn’t exactly linear. I hope you’re doing well and keep managing your heart and mind with the support of your loved ones. Take care and thank you again.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. oh, the system is unfair. oh, the world is against me. oh, poor little me, the unprivilidged and unlucky white middle class, BA Dartmouth, semesters away in Prague an Toulouse, PhD Berkeley, helping the poor little Africans while I go climbing in Nairobi. oh, my instagram perfect life. and then they tell me that I need to show commitment, effort and independence! how dare they!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, so you’re Economist c4f4 at EJMR! I just wrote a response to you there as well, but I’ll share it here also. I’ve got two thoughts on your comment. One is that I see I used the phrase “privilege and luck” in an unclear way, and I plan to go back and clear that up in the post. The other is that I’d like to ask you to think about how your reply shames people with mental illness (which is, you know, an actual illness) and discourages them from asking for help. That seems like an inefficient outcome, compared to a world where people feel like they can talk openly about illness and seek treatment as needed.

      I wrote in the post that academic success involves privilege and luck, as well as intelligence and effort. You interpreted this as my saying that I lacked both privilege and luck. I see that I phrased that unclearly, because I didn’t intend to cover up or disclaim the advantages that I’ve had. As you note, I’ve had a really privileged life — the type of privilege that makes it more likely that someone like me will arrive at a place like Berkeley, compared to someone of a different race or income bracket. I included “privilege” in reference to the broader questions of sexism and racism in academia which I had mentioned in an earlier paragraph, and not in reference to myself. I’m going to edit that in the post to be more clear.

      Your comment also seems to suggest that depression is just an excuse for laziness, and that I made a principled choice to miss a bunch of deadlines that were critical to my continuation in the PhD, and then sat about whining when I was called out on it. When I was younger, I used to think more similarly to you. I knew some people who had depression, and I often wondered why they didn’t just get their acts together. It wasn’t until I went through the experience of it myself that I came to understand that depression really is an illness. I didn’t have any trouble completing my academic work to a high standard until I was a few years in to the PhD. It was incredibly confusing when I found that I could no longer focus on an article or show up on time to the class I taught. I really wanted to do all of these things, and I’d successfully done them before, but I simply didn’t have the energy. That really helped me to see that depression genuinely is an illness, and can knock you off your feet just as the flu can.

      I didn’t ask for help for my depression for a long time — and thus continued performing at an inefficiently low standard, which wasn’t benefiting anyone — in part because I was afraid of derisive responses like the one you posted. Depression is really common in academia, and there are almost certainly people reading this forum who are unhappy and could be performing better, but are reluctant to tell anyone about it because they don’t want their peers to think they’re stupid and lazy. You can see it as an efficiency argument — if you make it easier for people to talk about their problems and solve them quickly, they’ll be better able to focus on their work. Shaming people for talking about their problems doesn’t achieve that.

      Anyway, everyone is going to go through periods of real stress in their life. At whatever point you might, I hope you’ve got people around who will support you instead of belittling you for them. If you want to talk about any of this further, I can see that you read my CV in minute detail, so you’ve got my email address.

      Take care,

      Rachel

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Rachel

        Yes it’s a snarky comment and no, I did not imply to shame you or people going to depression, which though I’ve never gone through it myself (I think) I have been living with, close quarters, for most of my life, be it family, classmates or co-workers. It was a pointed remark to something very specific, the feeling that academia discriminates against depression and the overall entitlement feel that came out of your post.

        I’m completely fine – and in fact aplaud – your text on the difficulty of dealing with depression, its diagnosis, treatment and recovery. I know how all of these things are extremely difficult and wish you well on this path.

        I’m not fine with a constant graduate student narrative of how depression in academia is a particular problem and the victimization that goes along with this narrative. It is definitely a problem, just like it is in most walks of life. Society doesn’t deal well with mental health problems, also because medicine itself seems underdeveloped given the scale of the problem. Having said that, what I see are – typically – upper middle class white kids, who have been privileged all their life, given all possible advantages and been typically so protected on their safe path to greatness that, when they face: (i) their first tough and prolonged moment of introspection – which in many ways is what graduate school is about; (ii) and/or realize they are not the god-given gift to intellectual life on earth they thought they were (by facing amazing peers and senior academics) or (iii) and/or simply face the first moment of personal responsability out of their little bubble, their entire outlook on life crumbles and depression ensues in many cases. This is in many ways an unavoidable process, the consequences of which vary from grad student to student. Students should have that in mind as they go into grad school; and parents, friends and, yes, universities should internalize that this is bound to happen. They should also have in mind that this is probably the safest and most inconsequential – in relative terms – environment to have a depression. Grad students typically do not recognize their privilege: they do not recognize that the same disease for, say, a black single mom of three kids on minimum wage being bullied at work has much more disastrous consequences.

        This degree of realism is typically lacking. Instead I see graduate students victimizing themselves and blaming the big bad professors. As a senior academic, I am an advisor and god knows how difficult that is already. I am not your friend. I am not your family. I am not your personal support group. I am not into the business of creating safe spaces for you to feel comfortable if you’re feeling down. I am not going to go soft on you because you’re sick. I am not going to discriminate positively. I am not going to diagnose you or help you on your recovery. I am not qualified to do that. Rather, I will be expecting that – as with any sickness- you either communicate that directly to me or indirectly through some channel. And that, if it is serious, you will do what other sick people do: take a leave of absense and take care of yourself.

        The derision in my comments are not with regards to your depression. Rather, it was directed at the overall victimization that came across at very particular points of your text.

        Take care!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You have so many thoughtless, poorly argued statements in this comment that I don’t even know where to start engaging with it. Let me wish that you learn to express some minimal compassion for other people one day. I’d appreciate it if you don’t contact me again, on this blog or elsewhere.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Rachel, I really thank you for doing this necessary work to improve the profession. You’re taking on a lot, and you’re doing it with much more grace and courage than most people could. We’re all grateful that you’re speaking out.

        I’m not really sure why I can’t reply directly to Economist c4f4’s comment, but I’ll try to reply here.

        Economist c4f4—why don’t you out yourself so that grad students (and other colleagues) can just save themselves the trouble and avoid working with you? Just because we’re privileged doesn’t mean the system is working well, except maybe for folks like you. And I bet the system isn’t working that well for you, either. Let’s try to advocate for change together, instead of dismissing the students at the bottom of this absurd totem pole. Depression and low morale is never optimal anywhere. It will take more imagination to effect change than seems to be present in most academic institutions right now, but I’m sure it can be done.

        Best,
        Lisa Xu
        G6, Public Policy PhD at Harvard Kennedy School

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Follow up just to say I didn’t realized your post was in fact signed, Thijs ten Raa. I’m embarrassed for you that you’re leaving comments like this to graduate students. Maybe you should check your own privilege.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for this honest, thoughtful post. I’m about to start a job teaching and advising PhD students and I’m very concerned about the general structural problems that make PhD programs inaccessible for people who deal with mental health challenges, and also exacerbate those challenges for many. Do you have any thoughts about what individual advisors can/should do to make PhD programs better at accommodating/mitigating these issues? What about department leadership? Thanks for any insights you have about this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello! This is a great question. I’m planning to write a follow-up post with some concrete suggestions soon, so let me hold off on a response until I’ve done that. It sounds like you’re going to be a great advisor — your students will be lucky to have you on their team!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Picking Up The Tabb and commented:
    Graduate school is grueling, and it represents the nadir of many people’s emotional lives. A great many of my friends have struggled during these painful years. I needed counseling to remain on target while completing my Ph.D., and I know I am in good company on that score.

    In this brave and insightful post, Rachel Strohm explains the process that led her to realize that depression was weighing her down and the therapy that helped her to rediscover herself. If you find that several of these warning signs sound familiar, remember that there are many people nearby who want to help!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks Rachel. Well done. I never knew you were suffering from depression. It explains a lot. I had a similar experience in grad school. In the end it was part of what prevented me from completing my PhD. I did not realize until many years later that the problem had been exacerbated by underlying clinical depression. It has only recently been effectively treated, with a combination of medication, a therapist and many of the tools you mention. My journal could make a book some day!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello! I do really wish I’d been able to be more open about this earlier. It was really hard to dig myself out of all the shame I felt about it. But I’m glad I’ve got there now!

      I also didn’t realize that this was a factor in your own PhD. But I’m so, so glad to hear that you’ve found treatment that’s working for you.

      Lots of love to you and Cindy!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Rachel,
    Thank you for your post. I’m a second year PhD student and have been taking antidepressants and seeing a therapist since last summer. Though overall these have been tremendously helpful in alleviating my depression, periods of high stress (e.g. finals) are triggering my symptoms.
    I was wondering if you or anyone else has advice on how to handle the fact that there will always be periods of high stress (in any career) and how depression often gets in the way of succeeding during those times.

    I’m fairly open about my depression— my advisor knows. Besides actively taking care of myself through therapy, medicine, self-acceptance, etc. how can I still meet my academic goals?

    Is it possible to be high achieving in academia (or any other career) while having depression?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello! I’m so glad to hear that you’ve found some good sources of support. I agree it’s really tough to face continued sources of stress even with that. I’ve definitely had times when I’m doing well, then start feeling depressed again when going through a stressful moment, which would initially really panic me that I’d lost all my good progress and would feel depressed forever. Then I would try to stick to my routine of journaling, eating well, seeing friends, etc. and eventually get back onto better footing. After going through that process a few times, it became easier for me to see that my mood was probably always going to fluctuate like this, but that it was unlikely to get stuck on “permanently depressed,” which made me feel calmer even when I was depressed. (It’s worth noting here that I think I had a type of situational depression — there were specific underlying stressors in my life, and once I was able to fix those, I felt a lot better. I’m not sure how this advice would work for chronic depression.)

      In general, if I know that I’m going to face a stressful situation, I’ll do a lot of journaling beforehand about what I think the experience might be like, what specific fears I have about it, and how I would respond if those worst case fears came true (which in all likelihood they won’t!). For example, I often find submitting updated dissertation documents to my committee stressful, because I get hung up in cycles of negative thoughts like “they’re going to think you’re an idiot” and “they’re not going to want to work with you any more because you’re an idiot.” I’ll write down all those fears, no matter how small or unlikely. Then I’ll go through and say, ok, let’s say the worst case scenario does happen. What would you do then? And writing this out actually helps me see that the worst case scenario is probably unlikely to happen. I’ll end up thinking, “Wait, even when they’ve had criticisms of my papers in the past, it’s been pretty productive, and been intended to help me make it stronger. I probably haven’t lost my ability to do good work overnight. And if in the worst case someone disagreed with my work and no longer wanted to work with me, then they wouldn’t be a good fit for my committee anyway, and I could just find another professor who did want to work with me.” This process doesn’t take away the stress, but it does remove some of the fear of the unknown, which helps me a lot.

      I’ve also gotten a lot better at realizing that there simply are times when *I’m going to be depressed, and that’s ok*. For example, I now know that when I do a big presentation in front of a group, I find that stressful no matter how much I prepare for it, and I’ll often crash the following day when the adrenaline wears off. I used to blame myself a lot for this, but now I’ve realized it’s just a regular feature of the way that my brain works, and there’s no shame in it. These days, if I can, I’ll just take care to not schedule anything for the following day, and give myself the day off to do relaxing stuff instead If I take the day off and pay attention to how I’m feeling that day, it can reset my mood, and help me to feel a lot happier and calmer the following day. Sometimes it’s easier to roll with depression instead of always fighting it, if there’s a way to do that which doesn’t keep you from fulfilling other responsibilities.

      To your question of being high achieving, I definitely think it is possible! Depression is an illness like any other, and it can require some accommodation, but if you can find a position which provides that, you can do really well. I struggled a lot in my PhD because I felt like I couldn’t tell people how I was feeling or take time off when I needed it. In my current job, my co-founder and I have been really explicit about saying that employee mental health is important, and people are free to take time off when they need it, as long as they ask someone else to cover their urgent tasks first. That’s given all of our employees the ability to get support while still taking steps to fulfill their responsibilities. I’ve been able to get much more done in part because I know that I’m not going to have to hide how I’m feeling at any point, which reduces a great deal of stress.

      Anyway, long responses, but I hope they’re useful. Thanks for writing, and best of luck figuring all this out!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. “I don’t think any of these messages or actions were maliciously intended. They’re born of a type of congratulatory self-regard among some professors, who tend to overemphasize the role of intelligence and effort in their own success, and disregard the role of privilege and luck.”

    And this reminds me of “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
    Rachel, I think you should write a book on this topic. You have no idea how liberating it is to read this. Thank you very very much!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you for your post. You effectively summarized the same feelings/condition I have experienced throughout the last 3-4 years. It’s pretty liberating to realize that we are not alone in this.

    Liked by 3 people

Comments are closed.